Dear Word Detective: Shortly after the birth of my nephew, my sister-in-law informed the family that she did not want his pacifier to be referred to as a “binky.” That got me wondering where the term came from in the first place and then how it became a common term for a baby’s pacifier. — J. Smith.
Hmmph. Kids are hopelessly spoiled these days. When I was an infant, we didn’t have any fancy-schmanzy “pacifiers.” If we wanted something to gnaw on, we got off our duffs and found a nice twig, and we turned out just fine. Besides, last time I checked, the human hand comes with a dandy built-in pacifier. I still use mine at tax time.
I am intrigued as to why your sis-in-law doesn’t want people calling her sprog’s pacifier a “binky.” If it’s because she finds the term insufferably cutesy and cloying, I’m with her all the way.
The pacifier in its modern form of a plastic or rubber nipple attached to a ring or shield (to prevent the child from swallowing the gizmo) dates to the early 20th century, but the use of similar devices to calm an upset infant is probably as old as upset infants themselves. Evidently in the 19th century it was common practice to give the child a ball of linen cloth wrapped around a lump of sugar or, a bit disturbingly, meat or fat, sometimes soaked in brandy. According to Wikipedia, teething toys in 17th century England were often made of coral. Yum.
I was surprised to learn that “Binky” is actually a trademarked term owned by Playtex, which registered it in 1935. But as a generic term for the device, “binky” is substantially older, and the word “binky” itself has a history apart from pacifiers. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) lists “binky” as a folk term used in western Indiana as of 1912 to mean “any little mechanical contrivance,” and the word seems to have been in use for many years as a name for anything small and either inconsequential or cute. “Binky” is, for instance, popular as both a name for small dogs and a jocular nickname for men.
So, does “binky” actually mean anything? My guess is no. There is a Scots dialect word “bink” meaning “bench” or “shelf,” but I can’t imagine a connection to the way “binky” is used today. My guess is that “binky” is an onomatopoeic formation, a word whose sound conjures up a mental image, in this case of something small, not terribly important, but fun to have around.